Art, Meet a Library Person, Staff

UNC Librarian Opens Up the World of Australian Aboriginal Art and Culture


UNC librarian Will Owen’s chance encounter with Australian Aboriginal art sparked a lifelong passion. His blog, “Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American Eye,” was recently selected for permanent archiving by the National Gallery of Australia.

When UNC librarian Will Owen took off for Australia in 1990, he thought he was making the best of poor planning. Owen had intended to use frequent flier miles for a European Christmas vacation with his partner. But by the time they made reservations at Thanksgiving, every seat was long since booked.

Frustrated, they asked what was left.

“I can get you on a plane to Sydney,” the agent offered.

The surprise destination led the pair directly to a passion for Aboriginal art that has drawn them back again and again to “Oz” and has garnered Owen, now associate university librarian for technical services and systems, recognition for his expertise from the Australian government.

Most recently, the National Gallery of Australia requested permission to permanently archive Owen’s blog, Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American Eye, which records his research and reflections. In March, it became part of Pandora, described as “Australia’s Web Archive.”

Owen’s first experience of Aboriginal art actually came two years before the Sydney trip, when he visited a New York exhibition called “Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia.” The paintings, with their arrays of small dots, elaborate patterns in startling colors, and puzzling iconography, took the lifelong art lover by surprise.

“This is the first we knew it existed. I had no idea Australia’s Aboriginal people made art, much less crazy, beautiful art like this,” he said.

Attempts to follow up on the find, though, fizzled. “We watched plenty of National Geographic specials,” said Owen. “All we saw were beaches, surfing, and sheep ranching. We didn’t get the sense you could go to Australia and see the art.”

It was not until they arrived and took a day trip to the country west of Alice Springs that everything came together. Piled into a Land Cruiser with five other passengers, Owen listened, captivated, as their guide described Aboriginal culture and the complicated relationship at its heart between the people and the land.

“Aboriginal people don’t own the land,” explained Owen. “The land owns them.”

painting_400Kenny Brown, Tiwi Islands, Jilamara (Good Design), 2001.
The image derives from ceremonial designs that mourners paint on their bodies, says Will Owen. Following a death, the Tiwi people believe that the spirit will linger in the vicinity of the grave, lonely for friends and family. They paint their bodies and disguise their faces during elaborate rituals of song and dance in order to confuse the spirit and encourage it to move to the next world. Brown adapted these designs into an arrangement based on the shape of a human torso. The creativity and innovation that go into these disguises, Owen notes, stand in contrast to most Aboriginal art, which prizes transmission and accurate replication of traditional designs.

Each individual is tied to a particular piece of land—known as one’s country—by virtue of being born there, having family or family history there, or having ancestors buried there.

For Aboriginal people, the country is a living, sentient being. When they are away from it, “they worry for the country and the country worries for them,” he said.

From Sacred to Public

The paintings that had so intrigued Owen were, in fact, the outpouring of a great deal of worry. In the 1950s, many Aborigines were uprooted from the drought-plagued countryside and resettled in “ration depots.” It was a deeply painful period, accompanied by the forced removal of children from their parental homes. Not until 2008 did a newly elected government apologize for policies effectively meant to drive the people into extinction.

Against this grim background in 1971, Owen said, a teacher from Sydney watched children at the ration depot of Papunya tell stories by depicting objects such as animal tracks in the sand. But when he invited them to paint their stories with acrylics, the children refused, understanding that they were not allowed to share their knowledge with non-initiates.

Instead, it was the elders of Papunya who agreed to paint for the schoolteacher, first on the walls of the school building, and then on nearly anything they could find—boards, linoleum tiles, doors, scrap lumber.

The men, said Owen, had discovered an outlet for their pent-up longing and worry for their far-off country. For the first time, they painted in a permanent form the stories of Papunya and of their homelands. They represented landscapes and history in a sanctioned “public” version of stories that had, until then, been rendered only in secret, sacred forms that they obliterated once they had served their ritual purpose.

They painted so prolifically that the teacher sold the art in order to purchase supplies. When the people at last returned to their country in the late 1970s, they took with them a new-found medium for expression, access to an emerging market for their work, and a drive to explain themselves and their way of life through art to the very society that had sought to extinguish them.

“It Was So Alien”

The paintings of this period that Owen had seen in New York came back to him as an intellectual challenge in Alice Springs.

“It was so alien, so unlike anything that I’d encountered before,” he said. “I wanted to try to solve the puzzle, to understand these minds that saw the world in such a different way.”

As he read up on anthropology, history, and art, he started blogging to keep track of all he was learning.

Owen thinks of his library and information technology work as quite separate from his self-driven study. But, he said, “Being a librarian has allowed me to conduct the research that the passion for the art generated. I would not have grown to appreciate it so deeply without the skills of librarianship and access to the materials at UNC.”

Eventually, he came to see his research and writing as a continuation of the efforts of Aboriginal people themselves to explain their lives and their world.

The grand passion that began with an unexpected flight to Sydney has led to other life-changing surprises, as well.

During some ten trips to Australia, Owen and his partner assembled a significant collection of Aboriginal art, ranging from traditional forms to modern interpretations in sculpture, photography, and video. They donated their collection to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in 2009. An exhibition, “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art,” opened in 2012 to significant acclaim.

(In an interesting coincidence, they met Dartmouth’s then-president Carol L. Folt during preparations for the exhibition opening. Folt was present at a dinner celebrating the gift hours before Carolina officials announced her appointment as UNC’s eleventh chancellor.)

Owen attended the 2006 opening of the Musée du quai Branly, a Parisian museum of world cultures that incorporates Aboriginal art into its architecture. And he was one of only seven Americans that the Australian Trade Commission invited in 2007 to visit 24 Aboriginal communities across the country. For Owen, it was a chance to see where the artists lived, where they created, and what inspired their art.

“For me, it was, ‘Wow, I’m getting to meet this famous artist,’” he said. “For them, it was, ‘Wow, my painting is in America.’”

With more than 600 posts under his belt, Owen plans to ease up on blogging. But he remains eager to continuing writing, lecturing, and bridging the gap between modern Western culture and a people that he said remains incredibly generous in spite of all they’ve endured.

“For more than 200 years, these people in Australia have been held up as the exemplar of the most primitive people on Earth,” he said. “In fact, their art—which is extremely popular, which the government has appropriated as a symbol of Australia—is the way in which these people have reached out across the racial divide, against bigotry, condescension, and hatred, to share what is theirs with the rest of us. Living in extreme conditions means that you have to share or else you die. Their art is the way they’ve chosen to share their culture with us.”

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Story by Judy Panitch. Photos by Jay Mangum.




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